Khady needed to spend a few days in Ziguinchor getting some paperwork – something that would be done in half hour on the internet in UK requires a week of running back and forth between offices getting photocopies signed and generally following the whims of the petty officials who are so very powerful. I took the opportunity to accompany my mate Eddie and visit a Diola fete in the village of Youtou (pronounced U2) near the border of Guinea Bissau.
We jumped out of a minibus halfway between Ziguinchor and Cap Skirring, at the village of Niambalang, where a ramshackle collection of huts sit next to a huge wide river. There was a pirogue just leaving – the good thing about travelling to big ceremonies is that everyone else is also travelling and you never wait too long. We crowded into a boat that should carry 15 or 20 but had perhaps 50, plus luggage, pigs and chickens. Just as we pushed off, they found room for a motorbike. I felt like I was en route across the Med to Europe. It was a one hour gentle putter through the mangroves, past tropical islands, bird life and white sand beaches where kids played in the clear waters.
We were greeted at the village of Youtou by Thomas who was to be our host. He is a shop keeper that Eddie knows in Cap Skirring, but this was his ancestral home and where his wife and children live. We walked through the palm trees, giant fromagers, baobabs and small village huts where folk sat in groups, drinking communally from wooden buckets of bounok (palm wine) or cadeau (cashew fruit liquor).
Youtou is a Christian Diola village although many people identified themselves as animist. Frankly it was a relief for me to escape Ramadan for a few days. Whilst impressed that virtually everyone unquestioningly abstains from even a sip of water throughout the entire day I’m left feeling nauseous when I watch them gorge on sugary rubbish and the equivalent of three meals in a couple of hours. Plus there’s an atmosphere as everyone’s on edge – apparently road accidents and fights increase dramatically.
Eddie and I had thought we were arriving on the first day of the fete but were told it started tomorrow. In the meantime, we were given a well swept room in the mud house of Thomas and his family and hung out with the kids. I tied up my travel hammock and installed myself. Over the next three or four days there was a succession of visitors, each of whom shook our hands and asked the same questions. I must have shaken 500 hands. Pigs had been slaughtered and the pork was tender and tasty, usually with mustard and onions. After eating it every meal for three days I was glad for some fish and rice.
The fete was a yearly event celebrating the return of young men who’d spent some time in the forest as part of their initiation ceremony. Said young men wore material tied like a loin cloth around their waists and lots of beads. One innovator had a cd tied to his bicep with unreeled cassette tape.
On the second day, we went on a trip with Thomas to visit his friends. The plan was to return to watch a dancing ceremony, but that was scuppered. Mainly because we couldn’t walk more than about ten meters without being called into a house and being offered a bucket of bounok, a litre of cana (rum) or huge plastic mugs of red wine.
At lunchtime I was laid on a matt as the local nurse scraped dirt and pus from several wounds on my feet (I’d had some infected mosquito bites for several weeks now) – he introduced me to an antibiotic powder that dries the wounds out. That solved my problem – I’d been using an ointment that kept them wet and unable to heal. As I declared I didn’t need any more booze, the village chief arrived, along with more bounok. You have to be polite.
I got back to my hammock, fell asleep and woke up after the dancing had finished. It was okay though. The best ceremony was the following day.
I emerged onto the verandah about 7am to see a group of men drinking bounok and they beckoned me over. A plate of grilled pork appeared and so began another day in the life of a Diola village. I jest – there is plenty of drinking in fetes – it’s like Christmas – but they promised me they do actually work and get things done for much of the year.
Later in the morning I walked to a clearing and watched a procession of chanting men and boys dancing in a line with rattles attached to their ankles around a central collection of various diola drummers.
The late afternoon ceremony was even bigger and better with marabouts from Guinea present and people brandishing spears.
Interestingly the dancing and chanting wasn’t dissimilar to that I experienced at the Bassari Kore initiation ceremony a year or so earlier – minus the reed masks. Cannons went off intermittently, making everyone, and particularly me, nearly jump out of their skin. Apparently they shove a mixture of sulphur, petrol and something else into metal tubes and light a fuse. As the dancers finished up and everyone disappeared back to their houses for further bounok and pork, Eddie and I ended up sitting with the Chiefs and promising to bring them new pipes next time.
We left the next day, after consuming the last of the pork – bop (the head). As I pulled out a lump that had empty tooth sockets, I decided I’d eaten enough pork for the week. We’d originally planned to take a forest route into Guinea, then across a river back to Cap Skirring, but were told there were land mines. So we took the boat.
I then spent a couple of days relaxing at Eddies place in Djembering. There were festivities there too – I got caught up in a village meeting where everyone was contributing funds for the next years agriculture. Again, it was hard to go far without being invited in for pork and bounok.